Tuesday. New York Primary Day. April 19, 2016.
He never was regular folks: Illustration by Eastman Johnson, "The boyhood of Abraham Lincoln---an evening in the log hut" 1868. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Via Wikipedia.
Keep this scene in mind if Joni Ernst---remember her?---becomes relevant again and you’re recalling what a laugh we liberals had over her boasts on the campaign trail that she knew how to castrate hogs:
Crucially, his liveliness and sociability served him well in politics. Campaigning again for the state legislature in 1834, he went out to a field where a group of about thirty men were working the harvest. A friend of Lincoln’s, J.R. Herndon, introduced him. The men said that they couldn’t vote for a man who didn’t know how to do field work. “Boys,” Lincoln said, “if that is all I am sure of your votes.” He picked up a scythe and went to work. “I don’t think he Lost a vote in the Croud,” Herndon wrote.
Lincoln won the election easily…
---from Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
Lincoln certainly didn’t win that election because he could swing a scythe. At best he picked up a handful of votes that day, and it’s a good bet that at least a few of those men didn’t vote for him despite the demonstration of his handiness. Shenk doesn’t tell the story to make that point.
Only a fool would have been persuaded Lincoln was a competent state legislator, never mind a future president, because he knew which end of a scythe to grab hold of. That he didn’t slice his own leg off that day wasn’t predictive of his ability to craft a piece of labor legislation or, when it came time, lead the country through a civil war and save the Union. It’s just an anecdote---one of many---that illustrate Lincoln’s character and temperament and his ability to work a crowd on the campaign trail. He was a natural politician because he liked people and was at ease in all manner of company, and people were drawn to him and liked him back.
It marked him as a born leader and made him electable. It didn’t make him great, although the heart and soul and intelligence that were at the root of his likability may have done the trick. Come to think of it, his likability was probably a terrific asset when he became President since it kept certain doubters of his capability and intelligence---like Seward and Stanton---from dismissing him out of hand and had them paying attention long enough and close enough to realize what a remarkable man they were working for.
Still, it is, like I said, just one story among many illustrating his character.
But it’s the kind of campaign stunt voters have always gotten a kick out of and political reporters have always loved to jump on for a story, mainly because it’s easy to write up and because it’s human interest and human interest sells, and have always made too much of. They like to tell it as if it shows something they think is important about the candidate in question---his authenticity.
As many a more astute observer than I have noted, the word authenticity when used by a political journalist has no fixed meaning. It’s simply a multi-purpose tool of a word pundits and analysts who prefer writing drama criticism to writing about policy reach for when they want to add a note of, well, authenticity to another canned review of a candidate’s performance before an audience of “regular Americans.” Candidates gets raves or a pan depending on the the critic-reporters’ judgment of how well their act plays with the groundlings.
Candidates earn or lose stars based on how naturally they act like they’re just regular folks at heart.
Authentic acts of authenticity are usually performed at state fairs and factory gates and in small town diners and neighborhood bars, although from time to time you can catch a show at stops off the regular campaign trail, like subway turnstiles.
If the word has any...authenticity...it’s in how it describes how well in acting their natural selves candidates connect with voters acting their natural selves. The object of a candidate’s acting authentic is to say to voters, “I’m one of you. I know what your lives are like. I know what you’re going through” and have them believe it.
I don’t believe voters are all that concerned with the “I’m one of you part.” Not as much as journalists seem to think. People looking at a possible president don’t want a friend, as such. They’re not looking for someone to have a beer with. Their looking for someone who, if they were to have a beer with her, will listen with real understanding when they tell her the stories of their problems and pain. They’re looking for someone who will represent their interests knowledgeably and sympathetically. She doesn’t necessarily have to share those interests.
The most authentic candidate in that way this election campaign has been Donald Trump.
Yeah, you and I know he’s a fraud and a con artist. So do, at some level, many of his supporters. But they believe that even if he doesn’t really share them, he understands their problems and concerns, their fears, angers, and resentments, and their aspirations and, especially, their dreams of the golden mountains. And of course he does understand them. That's how con artists work. That’s why they're so good at manipulating and exploiting people. They understand them. Trump understands his voters. Will he represent them if he’s elected president? That’s a question they’ll worry about later. Right now, he speaks for them and to them in language they use themselves with apparently the same passion they feel, and that’s all the authenticity they need.
No need to bother judging the other Republicans who’ve gotten the hook. Cruz, though, is authentically Right Wing to the Rightest Wingers and authentically pietistic to plenty of Right Wing Evangelicals and authentically a weasel to weasels.
As for the Democrats, I find Berne authentically irritable, self-righteous, and scolding, but that’s me. Bernie’s supporters believe him to be authentically revolutionary and that’s all the authenticity they need. I think his authenticity is assumed by the media by virtue of his being not-a Clinton and that’s about the extent to which they’ve been at all interested him---as an authentic problem for her.
Meanwhile, Hillary can’t say her own name without its being judged politically calculated and too obviously scripted by a committee of pollsters. And she’s a poor actress. When she does say her own name she invariably puts the emphasis on the wrong syllables.
Apparently even her taste in condiments is inauthentic.
How’s she pandering by claiming she likes hot sauce? What’s the matter with her liking hot sauce? I like hot sauce. I don’t carry my own supply when I go out and I don’t put it on everything. But I will ask for it at diners if there’s not a bottle on the table and we always have some at the ready here at home. I like to slather it on scrambled eggs especially, even though it gives me the hiccups. I didn’t know it had political implications. I sure didn’t know Beyonce had pointedly mentioned black people’s supposed love of hot sauce in a song. As Mrs M gleefully and I thought a tad superciliously pointed out when I mentioned this, I’m not a member of the BeyHive. Considering how far out of things I generally am, it’s amazing I even know who Beyonce is.
But I believe Hillary’s love for hot sauce is authentic.. Explains the whole basis of her marriage to Bill, I think
“You put hot sauce on everything?”
“Of course. Doesn’t everyone?”
“Marry me, darlin’!”
As I mentioned, the point of “authenticity”, to the extent there is a point beyond giving lazy and bored journalists something easy and amusing to write about, is that an authentic politician is one who shows how well she’s at home in the company of regular folks, that she is to some “authentic” degree herself just like regular folks. Hillary’s reviews on this score are generally poor. The critics regularly find her performances lacking in that kind of authenticity.
But there are millions of women and girls not just in the United States but around the world who believe she’s been authentic in her commitment since she was in college to making their lives better, that she has worked authentically and with passion and success on their behalf, and they love her for it and will vote for her with the enthusiasm the reviewers agree she doesn’t inspire. Millions of men will too. Many of them white working class men. Hard to believe, I know. But it’s true. There are working class white men who love and admire her and going by what the pundits and analysts seem to think working class white men are the most regular folks of all the regular folks.
But that doesn’t make her regular folks. She’s not regular folks. None of them are. They didn’t get where they are and achieve what they’ve achieved by being regular folks. In fact, a good deal of their success is due to their having determined early in life to distinguish themselves from regular folk. They didn’t think of themselves as regular folk. They hoped and worked for a life for themselves better than that.
Of course Lincoln knew how to work a field and handle a scythe. He grew up on a farm. But:
It is a mark of Lincoln’s soaring ambition that, four years from the fields, he sought to [become a lawyer and join the ranks “of the growing number of urban and industrial professionals] at a time when all but five percent of the men in the area did manual work for a living. It was a sign of his pluck that he did it virtually all on his own. While other young men learned the law at universities---or, more commonly, under the tutelage of an established attorney---Lincoln, as he noted in his memoir, “studied with nobody.” This was hardly the only mark of his ambition. A lawyer named Lynn McNulty Greene remembered Lincoln telling him that “all his folks seemed to have good sense but none of them had become distinguished, and he believed it was for him to become so.” This language suggests that Lincoln had, more than a personal desire, a sense of calling. “Mr Lincoln,” explained his friend O.H. Browning, “believed that there was a predestined work for him in the world...Even in his early days he had a strong conviction that he was born for better things than then seemed likely or possible...While I think he was a man of very strong ambition, I think it had its origin in that sentiment, that he was destined for something nobler than he was for the time engaged in.”
Lincoln was good-natured, sociable, easy-going, comfortable among all sorts and conditions of men and women. He liked people and they liked him back. He was popular. But he was different.
It wasn’t just that he was smarter and more driven than most regular folks. He was dreamy, artistically minded, literary, and intellectual. He read a lot. Hardly news there. And while plenty of people, particularly older, established, and successful professional men, including politicians and party leaders who promoted his career, admired him for it, liked him for it, and even voted for him because of it.---He had a way with words. Also not news. It was thanks to all that book-learning regular folks are often said to have no use for.---there were many people who didn’t like any of that about him and even looked down on him for it.
To men who had been born and expected to die on farms, book learning had limited value, a man ought to be able to read the Bible (for his moral life) and legal documents (for his work life). Writing could help too, as could basic arithmetic. Anything more was a luxury, and for working folks seemed frivolous. For generations, Lincoln men had cleared land, raised crops, and worked a trade. So when this boy slipped away from feeding livestock and splitting logs to write poetry and read stories, people thought him lazy. “Lincoln was lazy---a very lazy man,” remembered his cousin Dennis Hanks. “He was always reading---scribbling---writing---ciphering---writing poetry &c. &c.”
Later, Lincoln’s self-education would become the stuff of legend. Many parents have cited Lincoln’s long walks to school and ferocious self-discipline to their children. But Lincoln pursued his interests in defiance of established norms. Far from being praised, he was consistently admonished.
And he wasn’t always politic enough or “authentic” enough to keep his more profound differences to himself:
As decisively as Lincoln left the rural life, he left the Baptist church as well. In New Salem he became widely known as an infidel. He rejected eternal damnation, innate sin, the divinity of Jesus, and the infallibility of the Bible. For a time it seemed there was nothing sacred that Lincoln didn’t reject. He recited the poetry of Robert Burns, the notorious Scottish freethinker. He carried around a Bible, reading passages and arguing against them. It reached a point where it hurt Lincoln politically, with people loudly refusing to vote for a man with such “shocking” views. When Lincoln put his ideas about the Bible and Christ on paper, even one of his fellow skeptics thought he’d gone too far, and threw the manuscript into the fire.
I wonder what kind of reviews that much authenticity in a presidential candidate would get today.
Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk is available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.
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